What’s the first thought to enter your mind? A memorable baseball game you attended, perhaps? Jimi Hendrix’ rendition? How about the scene that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen these lyrics following a stormy 25-hour defense of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry?
In 2008, Congress designated the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail to commemorate the events, people, and places that led to the birth of our national anthem and flag. The Trail commemorates the movements of the British and American militaries over land and water in the upper Chesapeake during 1812-1815. The Trail traces five nationally significant events during the 1814 Chesapeake Campaign along routes with sufficient historic integrity and learning and recreational potential to warrant the national historic trail designation. Beyond the War of 1812’s military stories, the routes can highlight the War’s timeless lessons and storylines, including patriotism, struggles for independence, and the strength and unity that continue to shape our nation in war and peace today.
The 300 miles of the Star-Spangled Banner Trail weave together the rivers, shorelines, rural and urban landscapes of Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, and in doing so provide opportunities to tell stories about the lives of leaders, soldiers, and civilians. The social history of this era captures the imagination as much as the battle movements for which the Trail was designated. Women, slaves, freedmen, farmers and townspeople aided a fledgling militia in the ultimately successful defense of our country from a militarily-superior British Navy. The War of 1812 secured America’s status as an independent nation, and dramatically influenced America’s geography and cultural identity.
Beyond the symbolism and power of individual places and objects, the landscape in which the Chesapeake Campaign took place provides an outstanding setting to explore natural environments. With the Trail as a thematic and geographic framework, the National Park Service and Trail partners develop and water-based learning and recreation opportunities that expose Chesapeake residents and visitors to the myriad and multi-faceted stories of the Bay then and now. Connecting Trail users through active learning can foster appreciation and respect for this transformative but largely overlooked period in our nation’s history. The Star-Spangled Banner Trail will give users a flavor of life and liberty throughout the centuries in the Chesapeake, inspiring them to understand the context and consequences of the War of 1812 and the reasons to protect and steward significant 19th-century resources, including still-pristine views of forests, shorelines, and waterways.
The Star-Spangled Banner Trail differs fundamentally from national trails that commemorate western transportation and migration routes. Lying in the densely populated mid-Atlantic, much of the Trail’s historic landscape has changed, and shopping centers and subdivisions now bustle where tobacco fields once lay. While many historic routes are well documented, others are broken by development, and battlefields and associated sites may be fragmented or gone altogether. Only a few hidden “sunken roads” remain to help us imagine what travel must have been like along 19th-century byways. Some significant sites are privately owned or only visible from the water. The Trail designation gives the National Park Service and partners the flexibility to identify routes that provide visitors with optimal opportunities to experience the Trail’s historic and recreational amenities. Significant research and archaeology conducted previously and incorporated into a 2004 National Park Service study of the National Historic Trail, a report by the American Battlefield Protection Program on War of 1812 Sites in the United States, and ongoing research and archaeology will greatly inform the identification of appropriate Trail sites and routes.
The Trail’s recent designation reflects strong interest in the 2012-2015 Bicentennial of the War in Maryland in particular. The upcoming Bicentennial holds significant international tourism potential, but for Maryland, the Bicentennial is also an opportunity to affirm the state’s identity as the birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner. The state of Maryland has established a War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission which is actively planning to invest millions of dollars for infrastructure development, interpretation, and events. The NPS is coordinating closely with Maryland to develop a management plan for the Star-Spangled Banner Byway, which is envisioned to encompass the Trail’s land segments. Maryland’s Bicentennial efforts have generated early enthusiasm about the Trail through coordinated promotion and outreach, and the Trail will continue to benefit from collaboration on infrastructure development, interpretation and programming (see Autumn 2009 Pathways, p. 9). Projects underway include a watertrails plan, signage, wayside and travelling exhibits, public art, a travel guide, and other media that will help bring the Trail to life. The Trail will also bridge War of 1812 Bicentennial efforts in Maryland with similar activities underway in Virginia and Washington, DC.
The Trail complements a number of National Park Service projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that foster improved public access, conservation, and interpretation. The Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network is a partnership of water trails, parks, museums, wildlife refuges, and other sites that supports high-quality interpretation and water access. With over 60 Gateways on or adjacent to the Trail, the Friends of Gateways has developed a Star-Spangled Banner Geo-trail with geocaches at over 30 sites with a War of 1812 connection. The 3,000-mile Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which commemorates the 1607-1609
voyages of John Smith, overlaps the Star-Spangled Banner Trail’s water segments, providing opportunities for coordination on signage, public access, and watertrail development. The Star-Spangled Banner Trail also overlaps parts of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail, and connects national parks including Fort McHenry, Fort Washington, Oxon Hill Farm, George Washington Birthplace, and President’s Park. The growing National Park Service presence in the Chesapeake provides an opportunity to join forces with hundreds of public and private organizations to collaborate toward a common goal: through conservation, preservation, and interpretation, to protect, celebrate, and sustain the relationship that inhabitants and itinerant visitors have had with the Chesapeake since humans first settled along the shorelines.
Over the next year and a half, the National Park Service will involve residents, landowners, community, history and recreation groups, and government agencies at all levels in developing a comprehensive management plan for the Star-Spangled Banner Trail’s administration, development, and maintenance. The plan will also provide guidelines for establishing, recognizing and marking the Trail’s segments and features, as well as recommend access, circulation, recreation, and interpretation priorities. The plan will enable the National Park Service and its partners to develop a Trail that inspires enjoyment of and reflection on the Chesapeake Bay’s history, people and places, and fosters a personal connection with the Bay that enables future generations to enjoy the Bay as we do now.
Article and Photos Submitted by Suzanne Copping, National Park Service. NPS Photos by Ryan Sullivan.